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Mike Haskew

Knife Handle Material: Natural, Synthetic And Hybrid Moments

Natural and synthetic materials are equal parts fashionable and functional.

2024 Knives annual
This article appeared in the 2024 KNIVES annual.

They complement one another in an easy, seamless union—blade and handle. One without the other means the knife is incomplete, or it isn’t a knife at all.

Along with the search for proper blade steel, appropriate handle material is the second critical element in the presentation, form, and function of the knife itself. Natural and synthetic handles play their roles. They bring utility and aesthetics to the package, and the maker’s choice sets the tone. Availability, cost, and maker’s preference fit into the equation when choosing the right handle material. And then, of course, the intended knife use weighs heavily.

In the end, it’s the eye of the artist that drives the visual element, and the job to be done by the user that directs his or her choice. The handle makes the knife complete.

At Masecraft Supply Company, co-owner Chris Hartman sees the supplier’s role as the facilitator. Never interfering with the artist’s concept, he views Masecraft as a provider of the palette. “We don’t advise what to use,” he reasons. “We are not big fans of, ‘You know what you should do …’ or telling a customer what to use, but more in supplying a wide variety of options to choose from. We are always willing to answer questions about our materials a customer may have, but it’s just not a good idea to advise what is right for them. That’s the maker’s choice.”

With that said, where is the market headed today? What does the landscape look like in terms of availability, trends, and timing?

“The majority seem to be sticking with composite laminates like G-10, canvas and linen Micarta, and Richlite,” Hartman says. “Natural materials like bone and horn seem to be in a continuing decline. Exotic woods still do well, but availability and pricing have become issues over the last two years.”

John Cammenga, vice president of operations at White River Knife & Tool, Inc., deals primarily in synthetic knife handle materials. He indicates that knifemakers who build hard-use models often lean toward durable synthetic handles and that the laminate trend holds up there as well, particularly with material available in a variety of colors.

Northfield UN-X-LD knife
This Northfield UN-X-LD knife from Great Eastern Cutlery (GEC), which registered the trademark and uses it on premium GEC pocketknives, features ALVS (acrylic laminated veneer shell) handle scales from Masecraft Supply Company. The dazzling shell veneer consists of real shell and high-impact acrylic laminated together within the sheet.

“The majority of our handle materials are synthetic,” Cammenga says, “and this is primarily due to stability and longevity. But many look great as well. Multi-color layers of fabric bonded with phenolic or polyester resin can have the look of wood, yet last much longer. Additionally, many of these are tackier when wet, giving the user additional hand purchase in tough weather or when processing game. Carbon fiber and G-10 are available in an ever-expanding array of colors and patterns and almost bulletproof when it comes to wear and tear.”

Choosing Knife Handle Material

The choice of materials, Cammenga explains, comes directly down to the proposed use of the knife. For hunting, fishing, camping or bushcraft, White River almost always recommends synthetic handle material. However, John still gives a nod to personal preference. Some users simply must have a natural handle, and the aesthetic factor comes into play there.

“It’s hard to beat the beauty of a highly figured burl!” he comments. “Some, such as desert ironwood burl, are not only beautiful but also extremely tough.”

Tom Krein is an experienced custom knifemaker who worked for the great Bob Dozier and ran the custom shop for A.G. Russell Knives before embarking on his own venture during 30 years in the business. Making small utility and hunting knives primarily, he agrees that handle material choice relates to a few simple concepts.

Tom Krein’s “Mako” model features a Dion Damascus san mai steel blade with a copper-color stag handle.
Tom Krein’s “Mako” model features a Dion Damascus san mai steel blade with a copper-color stag handle.

“It comes down to the customer’s needs, willingness to care for the knife, aesthetics, and budget,” Krein relates. “Natural materials should hold up nicely with proper care assuming everything goes according to plan. Sometimes stuff happens—a knife falls into a sink of water, or it starts to rain while hunting, or your knife gets lost in the yard for a week. Synthetics hold up better when stuff goes south. For customers, I recommend getting what you like and learning how to take care of it. For knifemakers, I suggest picking the mind of another maker who uses the material you want so you can learn how to use it. Overall, we are a helpful bunch of people.”

Traditional handle materials and their innovative, eye-popping counterparts coexist at Santa Fe Stoneworks, a provider of materials to the art knife market since 1978. Santa Fe not only affixes those materials to its own knives, but also provides the service for Spyderco and Kershaw while doing private label work as well.

President Bill Wirtel leads the family business, and the company’s roster of natural handle materials includes the best of the best. “We work with factory knives and apply gemstones, exotic woods, shells like gold- and black-lip pearl, and fossils such as woolly mammoth tooth, tusk, bone, and petrified dinosaur bone,” he remarks.

As for Santa Fe’s synthetics, Fordite, a car paint overspray, Surfite surfboard overspray, and a cholla cactus-like material that is made in the shop have found favor with makers and buyers alike.

Material Mash Up

“We are looking for design and color, so we mix natural with manmade stone and epoxies,” Wirtel explains. “Our fossils are all stabilized so they work great for a handle material. We see hybrid materials gaining popularity as they provide the best of both natural and composite materials. Fordite and Surfite have been selling well. Our synthetic cholla cactus line that we make here, stabilizing it with different colored epoxies, is becoming a big seller as well. We also have mammoth tusk fusion. This is stabilized fragments of mammoth ivory that are fused together under immense pressure. The result is a beautiful and hard composite that is densely packed with mammoth ivory.”

Fordite car paint handle material adds a fun flair to this series of Santa Fe Stoneworks 3-inch lock-back folders
Fordite car paint handle material adds a fun flair to this series of Santa Fe Stoneworks 3-inch lock-back folders with damascus blades.

Fordite is an interesting option that comes from a surprising source. Also known as Detroit agate or motor agate, the material consists of pre-1985 automobile paint that hardened sufficiently to be cut and polished. It formed from enamel paint slag, which built up over the years in layers on the tracks and skids where cars were hand spray-painted. The buildup hardened in ovens intended to cure the paint on car bodies. After so much of that buildup, the brightly colored and layered paint had to be removed. Its allure caught on with some autoworkers who brought pieces home with them. From there, the beautiful Fordite material, which can be cut and polished into a spectacular look, found its way onto knife handles.

The Masecraft perspective is somewhat dictated by availability. “Sambar stag is not coming back,” Hartman stresses. “It has been banned by India for export since sometime around 2005, I believe, so that’s almost 20 years now, and I see no chance of this ever-changing. What’s still available out there now is it. Game over!”

“Black-lip, gold, and white mother-of-pearl all are still available,” he adds, “just not in larger size pieces as they were 20-50 years ago. They are overharvested and not as healthy as before. Demand for shell is down overall. It is not very tactical, and we seem to be in a tactical and bushcraft market for the last two decades. Shell tended to be more of a gentleman’s pocketknife material, so it’s not exactly the big trend right now.”

Santa Fe Stoneworks El Rey model is handled in a spectacular turquoise/abalone/bronze hybrid gemstone
This Santa Fe Stoneworks El Rey model is handled in a spectacular turquoise/abalone/bronze hybrid gemstone and includes a mother-of-pearl button inlay.

“Many of the companies that used a lot of shell on knives are gone or simply don’t have the people who know how to work with it anymore,” Hartman adds. “Shell is still one of the most beautiful materials ever, so much so that it seems to be the hardest to reproduce in any type of synthetic alternative that even comes close to its natural beauty. We can come close, but there is still nothing like the real thing.”

Krein sees a swing toward synthetics and higher-end natural materials as well. “Right now, there is a huge push to find and use vintage Micartas,” he relates. “I’ve also seen G-10 usage go up a ton over the years. G-10 holds up to use extremely well, is relatively inexpensive, and machines and grinds easily. I’ve also noticed quite a few new businesses that specialize in exotic stabilized woods. Stag has always been a desired and quality knifemaking material, and with exceptional stag being much harder to find, it is even more desirable, particularly when done [harvested and finished] properly.”

Watching the high-end polymer Ultem begin to trend as a new synthetic handle material has been interesting for Krein, and his affinity for giraffe bone has not waned. It’s something he calls the “latest real pickup in natural materials.”

White River Knife & Tool fillet knife with cork handle
White River Knife & Tool purchases synthetic material made in the USA, so supply chain issues have not been a problem. The one material the company imports, cork, has increased in price, but its supply has been uninterrupted. White River’s Traditional Fillet knife incorporates a handle of imported cork for easy cleanup and a tight grip in slippery conditions.

“I often see new makers using very exotic materials,” Krein concludes. “These materials are costly and often not used anywhere close to their potential. I recommend that new makers learn to use simpler materials like Micarta to their full potential. This leaves funds available for other materials and equipment while allowing a new maker to develop their skills. Just because a knife has expensive materials doesn’t make it better or more interesting to me. It’s developing the skills to make simple materials look elegant that I appreciate.”

Those Hybrid Moments

Hybrid handle material is on the rise, and Cammenga is pleased with the growing popularity of marbled synthetics. “Right now, there is strong demand,” he notes. “This is true in both cloth/resin laminates and carbon-fiber/resin laminates. For those who want natural wood, bone or antler, acrylic ‘stabilized’ scales have been popular for quite some time. They provide the user with a natural material, which has been made tougher by introducing acrylic resin into the fibers. Currently the marbled look is in with almost all materials, but we have made several knife models using G-10 and rubber combinations, as well as others from polyester cloth and resins.”

Masecraft is keeping a close eye on the development of new materials, but the course is charted by ingenuity rather than discovery. “As far as new natural materials, that’s going to be extremely rare,” Hartman observes. “The earth is not really producing anything new, so unless we have not discovered it yet, the odds are low. More likely, some natural materials will disappear and become endangered, banned, or extinct. Human history tells us the availability of natural material will decrease while prices increase. You will see more hybrids of natural and synthetic combinations, and all kinds of new synthetics will continue to be introduced.”

vintage Micarta
Knifemaker Tom Krein says there’s a huge push to find and use vintage Micarta, such as on the handle of his pocket bowie model.

Supply often dictates how well demand is satisfied, and the inherent scarcity of some handle materials has been exacerbated by supply chain concerns in areas. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has eased, the resilience of the supply chain remains an open question. Some suppliers and makers have faced shortages of stock items, while others have adapted, moved on to other, more readily available options, or simply been patient.

“I have been sourcing materials for over 44 years, and most of our suppliers know us and what we want,” Wirtel relates. “Obviously, we’ve had supply chain issues, but we have been able to work around them. We make our product to order, so we range in delivery time from a few weeks to a few months.”

Krein is positive regarding availability, saying, “There have been slight wait times for some synthetics, particularly Micarta, during the pandemic, but it seems like everything is back on track here. There has and will continue to be more demand for quality stag than availability. I’ve seen a bit less of quality exotic stabilized woods like exhibition-grade ironwood and Koa.”

While the supply chain phenomenon has been universal, Hartman is pragmatic. Going with the flow makes the Masecraft operation run as smoothly as possible. “There are supply chain issues with everything globally,” he observes. “I can’t think of anything on the planet that hasn’t been affected in some way, shape or form and that doesn’t have a price increase or isn’t in short supply, and it’s all things, countries, and markets.”

Dozier Knives produced this fixed blade with a Richlite handle from Masecraft Supply Company
Dozier Knives produced this fixed blade with a Richlite handle from Masecraft Supply Company composed of approximately 65% Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)®-certified recycled paper and 35% phenolic resin.

“If you don’t have the chip, you can’t produce the car,” Hartman says. “If you don’t have OD Green dye, you can’t make OD Green G-10. If one key part is missing due to supply chain issues, the product simply cannot be made, and that is affecting all things.”

Staying domestic has been a problem solver for White River Knife & Tool, according to Cammenga. “Because White River purchases synthetic material made within the U.S., our supply chain has not been a problem. The one material we do import, cork, has increased in price, but our supply has been uninterrupted.”

Considering the handle-blade combination that makes the knife come together for the spectrum of customers and users, today’s material options appear more diverse than ever. Although some shortages in natural materials may never be plentiful again, fusions of natural and synthetic options open the door to creativity. And the imagination is always fertile ground for innovation.

More On Knife Handles:

Custom Knife Royalty: Russell, Moran And Loveless


There are many names elevating custom knifemaking to the heights it enjoys today, but none loom larger than A.G. Russell, Bill Moran and Bob Loveless.

Nobody would question the straight-up fact that A.G. Russell, Bill Moran, and Bob Loveless contributed mightily to making the knife industry in the United States, and indeed worldwide, what it is today.

Their contributions to the growth and prosperity of knife manufacturers and their partners in the custom knifemaking world are well known to many, but during BLADE®’s 50th year a moment to recognize their achievements and their contributions is appropriate.

Of course, there are others whose involvement and support have had a positive impact through the decades, but Russell, Moran and Loveless—all long-time members of the BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall Of Fame®—are the core triumvirate that ushered the modern knife industry into its golden age.

Bill Moran

Bill Moran
Bill Moran

“Moran gets credit at the top of the list because of the founding of the ABS [American Bladesmith Society],” related Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bruce Voyles, past publisher of BLADE and, along with Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Jim Parker, co-founder of the BLADE Show. “That was followed by the development of the hammer-ins and the [Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing].” As he noted, the ABS was a team effort that included Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer B.R. Hughes, who was an educator.

“Bill was a renaissance man if there ever was one,” Voyles continued, “but he had the best publicist in the knife business in the form of B.R. Hughes. So, as a team they absolutely rank at the top. B.R. had the good sense to know that Bill Moran was the person to represent the ABS, and Bill was a leader in his own right, but without B.R. there may not have been a bladesmithing school.”

Bill Moran Knife
The ST-23 is one of if not the most coveted of Bill Moran knives. (Francesco Pachi image)

Hughes, now 91 and the elder statesman of knife writers, remembers his work with Moran and gives credit to Moran’s foresight at the forge as well. “Bill Moran saved bladesmithing with his reintroduction of damascus in Kansas City in 1973,” Hughes observed. “And when we formed the ABS in 1976, the only goal was to preserve the art of the forged blade. There were three people making damascus [in America] then: Moran, Bill Bagwell and Don Hastings. They met in Bagwell’s backyard and shop after the Guild met in Dallas. That’s how the ABS got started. There were four active members, including me named as a director. So, it started with four, and now there are 3,000 members. I’m still on the board, and now the main thing for me is not to go to sleep during the meetings!”

Bob Loveless:

Bob Loveless
Bob Loveless

Loveless stands out as a custom knifemaker and designer, as well as a pioneer in the organization of custom knifemakers into a cohesive group, setting standards, discussing issues, and assisting the growth and prosperity of many in later years. Loveless stands apart in his work, organizational input and one-of-a-kind personality.

Hughes recalls his introduction to Loveless courtesy of knife industry titan A.G. Russell. The men sat down at a diner, ate a meal together and Loveless spread some knives on the table. From there, Hughes authored an article about the California custom maker that appeared in GUNsport Magazine.

“Bob and I stayed in contact,” Hughes remembered, “and around that time Bo Randall was probably the most copied [of] knifemakers. Then, when Loveless [redesigned and repopularized] the tapered tang, he became the most copied knifemaker in America. He made that a standard and was very popular.” B.R. added that Loveless was also a good salesman and promoter, and his knives were selling for what were high prices even then.

Voyles said he appreciates the pure genius of Loveless to this day. “He was a phenomenally intelligent person,” he opined. “With Bob, they used to say that you loved him or you hated him. The thing about Bob was that what brought him into prominence was that he was the first person with an art background to make knives. He had gone to design school and made a handsome knife that was aesthetically pleasing, and noted that the knife’s top line should always fit a French curve.

Bob Loveless hunting knife
Bob Loveless helped celebrate 50 years of knifemaking in 2004 with this hunter set complete with engraving by C.J. Cai and a couple of autographed Loveless sheaths. (SharpByCoop image)

“Loveless made a good knife and a distinctive knife. Everybody started copying that, and the whole design of knives changed. Bob was also able to sum up a complex subject in one sentence. He was infinitely quotable, which meant outdoor writers loved him.”

According to Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Dan Delavan, Loveless was a unique character in the knife world. “Loveless was a genius in the whole industry,” Dan related, “and underrated. Because of his antics, some people didn’t think that much of him at times, but Bob was super smart. He knew things would happen before they happened. His drop point was modernized and refined, and he helped a lot of people get started. A lot of them emulated his style.”

A.G. Russell

A.G. Russell
A.G. Russell

Universally, the contribution that A.G. Russell made to the knife industry is acknowledged as tremendous. He brought people together, tried to build consensus, established the liaison between custom makers and factories that produced magnificent collaborations, developed a robust catalog mail order business that remains the envy of any businessperson, and is recalled as a true gentleman—whew!

Hughes remembers Russell not only for his introduction to Loveless, but also for another moment that proved to be a highlight. “A.G. told me there was a bladesmith in Maryland named Bill Moran and said I needed to get in touch with him,” B.R. smiled. “I kept in touch with Bill. He was always laid back and reserved and shunned a lot of publicity. I wrote a book about him in 1995 called Master of the Forge. We spent several days with Bill and Margaret that fall, Bill and I in the back seat of the car talking and Margaret and Carolyn in the front seat talking. Carolyn has been with me through all these years. I married her in 1957, and she has been the editor of American Bladesmith Magazine now for 20 years.”

Voyles remembers Russell as “the one that lit the fuse and promoted the Knifemakers’ Guild for many years and almost singlehandedly created an aftermarket for handmade knives.” Imagine the foresight, power of persuasion and business acumen that could exert such influence in the knife industry as a whole. It’s safe to say that A.G. was the catalyst for so much of the positive interaction that has taken place in the knife world over the past 50-plus years. He bought tables at gun shows for knifemakers to display their wares back when there were no knife shows to attend. He supported knifemakers with his heart, head and pocketbook.

“Knives were his passion,” Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Goldie Russell said in remembering her husband’s dedication. “He was determined to know everything there was to know about knives.”

A.G. Russell Knives HQ
A.G. Russell Knives not only is a landmark in the knife industry, it is in its hometown of Rogers, Arkansas, as well.

Goldie recalls her husband’s hard work that made things happen. “By June 1970, A.G. had reserved a block of tables at the Wanenmacher Gun Show in Tulsa and invited the makers he knew to exhibit and sell their knives,” she commented. “I believe it was at this show that he introduced the idea of the Knifemakers’ Guild. A.G. told me that two knifemakers that were on board from the beginning were [Cutlery Hall Of Famer] Dan Dennehy and Bob Loveless. At that show they decided to form the Guild, and there were 11 founding members.”

A.G. secured more tables at the Houston gun show in 1971, and more knifemakers joined the Guild. The following year, the first annual Guild Show and meeting were held in Kansas City, and the membership grew steadily.

In addition to his leadership in the formation of the Guild, A.G. was a visionary business owner. He created the first mail-order company that focused strictly on knives. Until that time, consumers could leaf through the pages of the Sears & Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs and hope they found something. But Russell changed the game in 1964 when he started A.G. Russell Knives with the sale of Arkansas whetstones.

Goldie remembers another seismic achievement that her late husband was directly involved in—the establishment of the first high-profile knife collaboration. “He arranged for Bob Loveless to meet with Schrade Cutlery to produce a modern fixed-blade knife,” she commented, “and the result was the Schrade Loveless Hunter. I recently read something that said [Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer] Uncle Henry Baer facilitated that collaboration. I’m not sure how involved Henry Baer was, but if you look at what was happening, it was obvious that it was A.G. Russell who had direct involvement with Schrade and Bob Loveless.”

A.G. is also known for his innovative work with Schrade to incorporate the Knife Collectors Club, the first organization of its kind. “This was A.G.’s concept,” Goldie observed. “His idea was to create serial-numbered commemorative folders, which would be offered to club members. A.G. would select the knife, develop the project and sell the knives. Schrade would make the knives.”

Goldie personally witnessed her husband’s investment of time and treasure to promote knives from every angle. He supplied Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Blackie Collins with his mailing list in the early 1970s so that the earliest issues of American Blade, which would eventually become BLADE, had somewhere to go. He supported new manufacturing brands during the 1980s. And he was willing to provide a frank and honest assessment of a knifemaker’s work when asked to do so.

A.G.’s wisdom came shining through when he discussed with Arkansas knifemaker/Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Jimmy Lile why the two had not become closer friends. Goldie noted that Lile said, “A.G., when I could not do better, you told someone that my knives were not very good.” She added, “A.G. said that as soon as Jimmy expressed that, he realized what he had said. After that Jimmy and A.G. were friends.”

A.G. offered his advice when asked. Goldie remembers a meeting with Stuart Leatherman and his brother, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Tim Leatherman, regarding the direction of the composition of the Leatherman multi-tool. “I was in that meeting,” she related. “A.G.’s advice was to upgrade the blade steel and make handles of titanium. His other advice was to find a way to make the handles easier on the hand when using the pliers. The Leatherman Charge and Charge Ti quickly followed that meeting.”

A.G. Russell, Goldie Russell and Ron Lake
BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® members (from left) Ron Lake, Goldie Russell and A.G. Russell share thoughts at the A.G. Russell Knives booth during a past BLADE Show. (A.G. Russell Knives image)

Among other contributions that Goldie and also Phil Gibbs, knife designer at A.G. Russell Knives, remember regarding A.G. are his design innovations, particularly as the first to create folders with handle materials other than metal that did not include metal liners, and in the human element, his willingness to take time with everyone. For example, one day a couple stopped by the A.G. Russell Knives retail store in Rogers, Arkansas. Goldie was asked to step over to meet them. They were unaware of A.G.’s passing until they had seen his portrait in the entryway, and they wanted to express their sympathy.

“They said they had often come into the store and spent time with A.G. talking about knives and knife history,” Goldie noted. “With tears in his eyes, the gentleman said, ‘Mrs. Russell, we are nobody, but he treated us like we were somebody.’”

Delavan, co-owner of the old Plaza Cutlery retail knife store in Costa Mesa, California, and now of plazacutlery.com, put A.G.’s impact into perspective from a professional standpoint. “We both had businesses and a lot in common,” he reflected. “A.G. was a wealth of knowledge. He seemed to know everyone and everything, and I looked up to him.”

No doubt, there are many other individuals whose contributions to the growth, expansion, and thriving entity that the knife industry is today are worthy of praise and recognition. These three—Russell, Moran and Loveless—are, however, more than just a good start. They are giants among other giants, and their accomplishments will continue to resonate across the decades.

Read More On BLADE Magazine And Show:

Military Knives: Soldiers’ EDC From The Past 50 Years

Stepping away from standard issues, combat veterans recount the off-beat military knives they used day-to-day during their service.

Since BLADE® Magazine went to press for the first time 50 years ago, there have been wars and rumors of wars. Even in peacetime, the U.S. military has stood ready in defense of freedom around the world.

When service men and women have deployed into harm’s way through the years, their knives of choice have been by their side, sheathed or strapped, buckled or pocketed, or carried in a duffle bag. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, service personnel have taken their chosen tools abroad and put them to use for a variety of chores.

Kim Breed

  • Fer de Lance from Pacific Cutlery
  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • Swiss Army knife with tweezers
  • Cold Steel SRK
  • Randall Models 1 and 14

BLADE field editor/knifemaker Kim Breed spent nearly two decades in the Army, serving with the 10th and then 5th Special Forces Groups. His experience in the Gulf War included a mixed bag of available knives for anything that was needed.

Military Knives: Pacific Cutlery Fer de lance
BLADE® field editor/knifemaker Kim Breed said his experience with military knives in the Gulf War included a mixed bag, including the Fer de Lance designed by David Steele for the now-defunct Pacific Cutlery. Pacific Cutlery was owned and operated by BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Les de Asis, who went on to found Benchmade Knife Co. (image of Fer de Lance courtesy of Arizona Custom Knives)

“I carried the Fer de Lance designed by David Steel and produced by Pacific Cutlery,” he said. “It’s a double-edged fighter and I carried it almost my whole career. It’s light in the hand and has a big enough blade to do the job. Two edges meant I had one sharp for heavy duty and the other for finer stuff. Plus, the locals would freak out when I brought out a double-edged knife. It was good psychological warfare.”

Along with the Fer de Lance strapped to his back, Breed also had a Swiss Army knife at his side and an Arkansas toothpick.

Military Knife: Swiss Army Knife
An unexpected military knife: Kim Breed indicated Swiss Army knives were especially handy in Somalia for removing stickers and thorns with the tweezers.

“It wasn’t the real big Arkansas toothpick,” he remembered. “It was a smaller dagger with an aluminum handle. A lot of guys would buy the Ka-Bar because it was a good knife—but it was also cheap. When we got bored, we would throw knives, betting for a cigarette, chocolate bar or pound cake. The Ka-Bar might break but the aluminum-handle dagger wouldn’t.”

Speaking of the Ka-Bar*, it is among the top five knives of Breed’s Gulf War assessment, along with the Cold Steel SRK, Swiss Army knife, Randall Models 1 and 14 and the Buck 110. Each earned a bit of praise from the veteran.

Military Knife: Buck 110
The Buck 110 folder was widely available at the local PX and had good blade steel and easy carry for assorted cutting jobs.

The Ka-Bar has stood the test of time, and its generational tie to earlier combat deployments of family members from World War II forward may have been an influence, but for the most part, there was value, performance and availability to spare with the iconic fixed blade.

“It was in all the PXs,” Kim added. “You could get one for $12 and it worked pretty good, but if you broke one now and then you could have two or three around.”

Cold Steel SRK
Kim Breed said the Cold Steel SRK was a favorite among the troops, citing its molded Kraton handle in particular for praise.

Breed says the SRK was a favorite with its molded Kraton handle, while the Swiss Army was especially handy in Somalia for removing stickers and thorns with the tweezers. The Randalls were another legacy play. They were expensive knives but the troops’ fathers and grandfathers had carried them, so they were passed along to the sons and grandsons. The Buck 110 folder was also available at the local PX and had good blade steel and was easy to carry.

Jack Stottlemire

  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • Benchmade Stryker
  • Air Force/jet pilot survival knife
  • Custom Bob Horrigan
  • Randall Models 1 and 14

Knifemaker Jack Stottlemire served with the United States Marine Corps and the Army for a total of 27 years, with 14 combat deployments. He saw action in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the air war in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Marine service was first and he saw all his combat duty with the Army, retiring as a sergeant major with Special Operations. Like Breed, he stresses that knives were used for camp chores, prying, slicing and such.

Military Knives: Randalls
Randalls were expensive but fathers and grandfathers had carried them, so they were passed along to the sons and grandsons. Developed in the mid-1950s, the Randall Model 14 Attack gained fame as a military knife during the Vietnam War. (Dan Clinton image)

“Using a knife in combat to stab somebody is pretty much bull,” he declared. “I don’t know anybody that used a knife for that in all my years. But if you’re in a helicopter crash and you need to cut strings or get somebody else out of the wreckage, that’s more realistic.”

Again, the Ka-Bar makes an appearance in the top five knives from his experiences, particularly in the desert environment. Stottlemire’s top five knives of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars include a custom Bob Horrigan** piece with a green Micarta® handle and a 5.5-inch blade of 440C stainless steel. “Bob and I were in the same squadron together and he was a real hero,” Jack offered.

Military Knives: KaBar
Les George said he’s “pretty sure” his Ka-Bar saw action in the Vietnam War, the Korean War and possibly even World War II. The last time the knife was in combat operations was when George saw active duty in the Iraq War in 2005. (Les George’s knife and image)

“The Ka-Bar is everywhere and I carried mine from the time I was in the Marines, and still have it 40 years later,” he continued. “I remember getting them for $25 or $35 and using them to pry and hammer and to open MREs [Meals Ready to Eat] and ammo boxes. That’s what we used them for 99 percent of the time.”

The famed Randall had stayed around as well, again identified as a legacy knife handed down from one generation to another. As for folders, Jack’s units were issued the Benchmade Stryker. “It was common to have a lot of Benchmade autos and one-hand flippers, and there were Gerbers in the same category,” he commented. “I always carried my auto on my vest front for easy access in case I needed to cut a bandage or something like that.

Jet Pilot Survival Knife
Air Force survival knife

“Then we also had the Air Force survival knife. It was a jump master knife that looked like a little Ka-Bar with a stacked leather handle and a short bowie blade. A lot of guys carried more than one knife. They usually had a folder stuffed in their vest or pocket and a fixed blade on their chest next to their magazine pouches. That was for easy access. It’s hard to get to your stuff unless it’s on the vest, especially when you’re in a vehicle or helicopter.”

Les George

  • Custom EOD knife (self-made)
  • M11 EOD knives by Lan-Cay
  • Gerber multi-tools/Leatherman Wave
  • Benchmade Stryker and AFO
  • CRKT M16

Knifemaker Les George served with the U.S. Marines in explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) and carried a knife specifically for EOD use. “I actually made my own EOD knife in Iraq,” he remarked. “It was the first in a series that would become the M12 EOD knife that is currently listed as an option for USMC EOD units to purchase and use.”

Benchmade Stryker
As for folder military knives, Jack Stottlemire’s units were issued the Benchmade Stryker, an Allen Elishewitz design that debuted in the late 1990s.

Among the other knives that Les saw regularly in Iraq were the M11 EOD knives by Lan-Cay, Gerber multi-tools, Benchmade Stryker and AFO, and the Columbia River Knife & Tool M-16.

“The CRKTs were available at the PX and the other knives were issued to the Marines by unit,” George recalled. “Obviously, the Ontario bayonet was common for that reason. I had my large fixed blade that I used to probe for and dig up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and UXOs [unexploded ordnance]. It was a brute force tool, the very epitome of a sharpened pry bar. I had a small Benchmade fixed blade that I had bolted to my pistol holster. I used it to cut tape or prepare demolition charges, and all the cutting utility I needed was done with that knife. I also carried a Leatherman Wave multi-tool. I liked the Wave over the issued Gerber because it closed up smaller, and I could access the blade without opening the tool.”

Military Knives Wave Plus Fanned
Thanks to their versatility and affordability, multi-tools have been popular with the troops since Leatherman Tool Group introduced its original multi-tool in 1982. Les George carried the Leatherman Wave because it closed up smaller and he could access the blade without opening the tool. The Wave+ is a Wave descendant.

Les chose his knives based on the situations he might find himself in during deployments. “The big and small fixed blades had their niche, while the multi-tool was available as a catchall. With the kind of war that I saw, there was not much thought of knives used outside of tools, and for me cost was not a factor. I would have spent about whatever the price to get the knives I wanted.”

Top 5 Knives From The Vietnam War

  • Ka-Bar-type fighting/utility fixed blade
  • SOG fixed blade
  • M7 bayonet
  • Air Force/jet pilot survival knife
  • MIL-K

After studying the Vietnam War era and the knives that were most often found during that period in Southeast Asia, Frank Trzaska has come up with his top five from that timeframe. His list includes—you guessed it—the Ka-Bar, which sits at the top. “The U.S. Fighting/Utility knife, the Mark 2, the Ka-Bar, call it whatever you will, but to me it is America’s fighting knife—adopted in 1942 and still serving our troops to this day,” he smiled.

M7 Bayonet was a common ‘Nam era military knife.

Others topping Frank’s list include the original SOG, which he calls “a very hard-to-find knife made in limited numbers for the super-secret Studies and Observation Group [SOG], Green Berets that went out into the field to locate the enemy—Recon.”

Frank has also found the M7 bayonet, designed to fit the M16 rifle, to have been in regular use. “It was another piece in succession that was originally adapted from the M3 trench knife of World War II fame,” he noted. “The M3, M4, M5, M6 and M7 all used the same blade profile.”

Military Knife: MIL-K
MIL-K was a handy addition to a soldier’s kit.

The Jet Pilot Survival knife, aka Air Force survival knife, and a small all-metal pocketknife called the MIL-K were frequently seen with troops in Vietnam, Frank noted. “The Jet Pilot Survival knife was an iconic knife of the Vietnam era, and it was shown in photographs everywhere,” he related. “Although the name was ‘Jet Pilot,’ it was seen on ground pounders just as often. The MIL-K was the perfect all-purpose pocketknife that, as an extra, is dated so you can collect all the years and at a somewhat low price.”

Trzaska has spoken with troops all over the world, and the multi-tool has surged to the forefront among military personnel deployed these days, but he also quickly adds that the Ka-Bar is still a favorite. Given the salaries of enlisted men, he speculates that cost was always a factor in the purchase of a Vietnam-era knife.

Final Cut

Times change but for soldiers through the last half century/publication life of BLADE, knife uses have stayed the same in many ways. “Almost everyone in Vietnam carried two knives, a pocketknife and a fixed blade, and if you count the bayonet, it would be three,” Frank observed. “They were used mostly for opening meals, mail and boxes. A pocketknife was handy but a fixed blade on your harness was meant for fighting. Along with your bayonet, they were weapons of last resort.”

From the more expensive models to everyday carry in the field, military personnel in Vietnam had their pick. “The Randalls were the knives everybody wanted,” Trzaska said, “but few had them. They became a status symbol of a professional. Young guys also liked big knives until they had to carry all that extra weight and never use them. Then the small knife was the king. Most knives of the era were common steel and would rust easily. Stainless steel was a big plus and found its way into knife production over time.”

Through the years, BLADE has published many accounts of knives in the hands of military personnel deployed around the globe. Since the early 1970s, these stories have brought valuable information to readers regarding performance, personality and collectability. That trend will continue into the future.

*As Frank Trzaska notes, no matter whether you call it the USMC fighting/utility knife, Mark 2, Ka-Bar or what have you, the fixed blade with the leather-washer handle and clip-point blade made by several different companies that first appeared in 1942 and did yeoman’s duty throughout World War II remains a U.S. military icon.

**Robert “Bob” Horrigan, a member of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, was killed in action in Iraq on June 17, 2005. His twin brother is award-winning ABS master smith John Horrigan.

Read More:

ABS Auction: What Crossed The Block In Atlanta

Top custom makers from around the world showcase rarefied knives at the annual ABS auction.

Each year when the BLADE Show rolls into Atlanta, the American Bladesmith Society (ABS) holds its auction of selected knives forged by ABS master and journeyman smiths. Here is a gander at the knives that crossed the block at the exclusive auction! ABS master smith and instructor Brion Tomberlin serves as a director and secretary of the society, and he handles the ABS auction from start to finish.

“I choose the smiths, mainly from the recent journeyman and master smiths who have gotten their stamps that year,” he explained, “and I also ask other master smiths and journeyman smiths, basically whoever I can get to say yes! The proceeds go to the general fund of the ABS.”

Support for the ongoing educational activities and programs of the ABS is vital to the health and future of the craft. Participants are honored to be involved and have their handiwork sold at auction by ABS director Robert Wilson. For years, Wilson has served as the event’s auctioneer, and Tomberlin said he likes to go with experience. For this year’s auction, several outstanding knives, both by American and international bladesmiths, will be available.

International ABS Journeyman Smith Knife—Jeremy Yelle: Gentleman’s Bowie

ABS Yelle Jeremy

Jeremy Yelle, a 22-year-old bladesmith from Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada, is excited to be involved and to offer one of two international journeyman smith knife entries. “I truly love the ABS and what it does,” he said, “and I felt like giving it my first-ever journeyman smith piece was the honorable thing to do.

“I personally love the antique and classic look of older knives, which is why I chose to make a coffin-handle bowie. The handle is a coffin shape, which happens to be a partial takedown. It has several lineup pins, my textured and fire etched 416 stainless steel fittings and a 416 textured spacer.”

Jeremy has been making knives for about five years, and his mosaic damascus blade was inspired by the process he learned from ABS master smith David Lisch. The handle of Jeremy’s gentleman’s bowie is particularly noteworthy with Canadian maple burl from Maritime Knife Supply that he stabilized and dyed. The knife is completed by a protective case.

International ABS Journeyman Smith Knife
Maker: Jeremy Yelle
Knife name: Gentleman’s Bowie
Blade length: 8.625 inches
Blade material: Mosaic damascus of 15N20 nickel alloy and 1084 carbon steels
Handle material: Canadian maple burl
Overall length: 13.5 inches

International ABS Journeyman Smith Knife—Pablo Lanaspa: Bisaurin

ABS Ubeira Pablo Lanaspa

The second international journeyman smith knife entry is from Pablo Lanaspa Ubeira from the small town of Berdun in the north of Spain. “I am very grateful to the ABS for bringing me the opportunity to make this knife,” he said. “Special thanks to Brion for his kindness and ability to help in every circumstance.”

Ubeira has been making knives since 2008, and this piece, a bowie-inspired design, comes with a zippered case. “I was already a collector and then started to make my own blades from recycled steel when I made a rudimentary coal forge and a small belt grinder,” he said of his earlier days. His knife features a blade with a hamon that is clay differentiated and hardened. The blade is also slightly recurved with a full sharpened edge on the back, while the wood used for the handle, Australian ringed gidgee, is a gift from Belgian ABS master smith Sam Lurquin.

International ABS Journeyman Smith Knife
Maker: Pablo Lanaspa Ubeira
Knife name: Bisaurin
Blade length: 12 inches
Blade material: W2 steel with hamon
Handle material: Australian ringed gidgee wood
Overall length: 17 inches

U.S. ABS Journeyman Smith Knife—Joshua States: Stylized Quillon Dagger

ABS States Joshua

Can you think of a better name for a maker of a United States journeyman smith knife than Joshua States? Of New River, Arizona, Joshua fashioned his U.S. JS model as a stylized version of a quillon dagger. “The coffin-frame handle is a complex build, and the blade is flat ground on the bevels with a central fuller,” he explained. “I took my first class with Tim Hancock, and that was a game changer. Previous to that I had spent about a year trying to do things without any training or reference material.”

According to States, his JS knife was originally undertaken as a commission. “A customer had seen a similar dagger I had made in 2014 and wanted a copy of that knife,” he recalled. “Unfortunately, he passed away soon after I had made the blade, and I hadn’t started making any of the other parts. So, I was now free to redesign the handle/guard/finial.”

Joshua also made the leather sheath with minor decorative tooling and a multi-color dye job. The leather is 5/16-inch thick in a heavy oak tanned sole bend.

U.S. ABS Journeyman Smith Knife
Maker: Joshua States
Knife pattern: Stylized quillon dagger
Blade length: 11 inches
Blade material: Pattern-welded 1095 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels, and nickel
Handle material: Pattern-welded frame/desert ironwood scales
Overall length: 16.3 inches
Sheath: Hand-tooled-and-stitched leather

U.S. ABS Master Smith Folder—Bill Burke: Lanny’s Clip

ABS Burke

One of two U.S. master smith knives to be auctioned is a folder from Bill Burke of the Boise, Idaho, area. A custom knifemaker for 25 years, Bill pays homage to the late Tony Bose, BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® slipjoint making wizard, with a Lanny’s Clip pocketknife in a shark’s tooth damascus blade and mammoth ivory scales. “A lockbar and spacer of damascus are included,” Bill said, “with integral liners and bolsters.” The liners are fileworked and the knife comes with a zippered case.

U.S. ABS Master Smith Folder
Maker: Bill Burke
Knife name: Lanny’s Clip
Blade length: 3.25 inches
Blade material: Shark’s tooth damascus of 15N20 nickel-alloy and 1080 carbon steels
Handle material: Mammoth ivory
Lock mechanism: Lockback
Closed length: 4.1875 inches

U.S. Master Smith Knife—Nick Rossi: Hybrid European Chef

ABS Rossi Nick

Nick Rossi of Vassalboro, Maine, contributed an integral European hybrid chef’s knife with a 50-layer twist damascus blade and curly koa handle as the second U.S. master smith knife. Both blade and handle are fashioned in the 25-year-veteran smith’s signature styles. The blade is flat ground with a subtle convex edge, and the handle features a bronze domed pin and a G-10 spacer. “This is my favorite type of knife to make,” he said. “It features an integral bolster, which makes it stronger and gives it better balance. It was inspired by European chef’s knives with a little Japanese flavor.” The knife comes complete with a padded case.

U.S. Master Smith Knife
Maker: Nick Rossi
Knife name: Hybrid European Chef
Blade length: 7.5 inches
Blade material: A twist damascus of 1084 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels
Handle material: Curly koa
Overall length: 12 inches

T.O.M.B. Knife—Steve Culver: Fighter

ABS Culver Steve

This year’s T.O.M.B. (The Order of the Mystic Brotherhood) Knife is by ABS master smith Steve Culver of Meriden, Kansas. Culver has been an active knifemaker for 36 years, and his fighter was inspired by “all the cool recurve bowies that I’ve seen others make.”

In fact, the knife is Steve’s first venture into the recurve blade style. The blade is 220-layer ladder-pattern damascus, while the handle is Arizona desert ironwood with guard and spacer materials of anodized titanium and stainless steel. Steve also made the lined sheath, which sports lizard skin inlay.

T.O.M.B. Knife
Maker: Steve Culver
Knife pattern: Fighter
Blade length: 8 inches
Blade material: Ladder-pattern damascus of 15N20 nickel-alloy and 1084 carbon steels
Handle material: Desert ironwood
Overall length: 13.125 inches
Sheath: Lined and features lizard-skin inlay

More On Custom Knives:

BLADE Magazine 50th Anniversary: Knife Industry Milestones

Revel in a short list of knife industry milestones that transformed the knife world.

Editor’s Note: BLADE Magazine is celebrating its 50th anniversary of its founding this year. To recognize this milestone, we are running a series of articles looking at the changes to the knife world the publication has been privy to over its history.

Time marches on. And in the cutlery industry, the half century from the early 1970s to the present has been filled with both revolution and evolution.

From the corner of a massive hall at a gun show, the slight mention of a new style of field tool, and the basic everyday factory blade carried in the worker’s pocket, the knife industry, both custom and factory, has blazed its own trail over the past 50 or so years, emerging from a somewhat obscure existence to the mainstream. And along the way have been those moments of discovery, awareness and excitement that have marked the trail.

For reference, a few of those moments include the following.

A.G. Russell and Lloyd Hale
The first “meeting” of the Knifemakers’ Guild basically was the idea of A.G. Russell. What would become the Guild Show was the leading knife show for decades. A.G. (right) discusses a Harry Morseth knife with maker Lloyd Hale (left). (Sid Latham image)


Though what would become the Knifemakers’ Guild Show was first held in 1970, the show that occurred three years later is still talked about today. That was when Bill Moran reintroduced damascus steel for knife blades, kindling a revival of interest in damascus as the new “super steel” and generating a wave of collector fervor. Also in 1973, Blackie Collins founded The American Blade, a magazine for the knife industry like nothing that had been seen before. Known today as BLADE®, the publication remains a voice for the industry and a tangible contributor to the life and times of the knife enthusiast.

In the following decade, knife shows increased in number and attendance, including the BLADE Show, the New York Custom Knife Show, California Custom Knife Show and the Guild Show, the latter which led the pack for at least 20 years. At the same time, Guild members established industry trends, including the drop-point hunter and the popularization of super steels 154CM and ATS-34 by Bob Loveless, while A.G. Russell vigorously supported the knife industry through his advocacy, sharpeners, knives and growing catalog business.

Blade Show 2007
Eric R Eggly, PointSeven Studios

In 1976, the American Bladesmith Society was formed, and those who forged their blades and worked in damascus at long last had their own organization to promote training and excellence with hammer-ins and other events that brought people together to learn the art of bladesmithing. By 1988, the ABS opened its own school, the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing. For the first time, bladesmiths and knifemakers could take advantage of a year-round school that offered instruction in forging, bladesmithing and more.


Nineteen-eighty-one saw the introduction of two watershed knife creations by Spyderco and Michael Walker. With the C01 Worker, Spyderco headman Sal Glesser introduced the first knife with both the famed hole in the blade for easier one-hand knife opening and a pocket clip for enhanced carry. Walker, meanwhile, debuted his groundbreaking linerlock folder. The innovations led to a concentration on ease of carry and deployment, focusing the industry on such elements that made the experience of knife ownership something even more special.

Jimmy Lile and Sylvester Stallone
Jimmy Lile and Sylvester Stallone combined to use Lile’s survival knife in the 1982 movie First Blood, and knives were never the same again.

Hollywood took its turn in the early 1980s with the Rambo series of feature films and the knives that played starring roles. Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Jimmy Lile and Gil Hibben became celebrities in their own right, and sure enough, other knife-and-sword-oriented films followed, including the Conan series, Commando, Predator and The Last of the Mohicans. These were just a few but the knives of custom makers profoundly influenced the marketplace. Soon enough, collaborations between custom knifemakers and factory knife companies began to flower.


By the 1990s, equipment such as CNC, laser cutters and CAD/CAM entered the knifemaking realm and brought about rapid change in the way custom and factory knives were made. The introduction of such hi-tech equipment into the maker’s shop gave rise to a debate over the very definition of handmade—a debate that continues to this day.

CNC machine
As early as the 1990s, the use of laser cutters—here cutting a hole in a Spyderco blade—CNC machines and other high-tech equipment began to take hold in the making of knives.

At the same time, the emergence of the internet brought the commercial knife market to the world, as custom makers, factories, dealers, collectors and others offered knives for sale on an unprecedented scale. The global reach of the internet led to a burst of information on every aspect of the knife industry, from websites, forums for the exchange of information, how-to videos, online auctions, and even a bit of the dark side—buyer beware! Know your customer and other maxims rang true.

Along with the information explosion, competition was more robust than ever, particularly with the onrush of China’s factory presence, not only in quantity but also, later, in quality. The Chinese influence has redefined notions of affordability, value, and how knives are produced and distributed, and the resulting market conditions continue to impact the buying habits of consumers worldwide.

2000s On

Of course, there are ongoing challenges. Two significant advocacy groups, the American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI) and Knife Rights, assumed leading roles in responding to knife laws and particularly to the zeal of government regulation, which at times has threatened the livelihood and freedom of Americans to carry one of man’s oldest tools. Pro-knife legislation and the legalization of automatics in many states are evidence of the credible work that has been done, with much of the organized response from the knife industry resulting from the defeat of the 2009 effort led by U.S. Customs to reclassify one-hand knives as switchblades/automatics.

Spyderco knife
With the C01 Worker in 1981, Sal Glesser and Spyderco introduced the first knife with both the famed hole in the blade for easier one-hand knife opening and a pocket clip for enhanced carry. Released in 2014, the company’s C01GPGR Worker Sprint Run paid homage to the original C01.

Knife Innovation

The history of the modern knife industry is one of rapid change and continuing innovation. Long-time maker Tim Britton recalls the influence of Blackie Collins and Blackie’s foray into publishing. “Blackie could sell refrigerators to Eskimos,” he commented. “The American Blade magazine was one of his favorite projects, and his input and support facilitated the start of the Knifemakers’ Guild. We had one show, the Guild Show, where we could share fellowship and technology. Names like Buster [Warenski], Henry Frank, [W.W. “Bud”] Cronk, Jim Schmidt and Bob Loveless became famous at our annual shows.

“Virgil England took us to another planet and then along came the Chinese industrial monster,” he continued. “Tactical knives were their focus and they had no hesitation in copying American designs. The American Bladesmith Society developed a business model whereby rediscovered damascus steel could be taken to all new levels. There was never any question in this group about ‘what is a handmade knife’ or who is copying whose design. Knifesmiths flourished, and Forged in Fire has taken us all to a new level. Knifemaking caught on in other countries, and those makers continue to produce some of the finest work imaginable.”

Opened the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing
The ABS opened the Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing in 1988. The principals at the school’s ribbon cutting ceremony were, from left: Carl Nelson, president of Texarkana College, Bill Moran and Mrs. Margaret Moran, and Judge James Pilkington.

Custom knifemaker Jim Sornberger well remembers the early days of the Guild and its organization. “The Guild thing was first discussed in 1970, and that was Bob Loveless and A.G. Russell,” he said. “Actually, A.G. bought tables for a bunch of the guys and set that up. He said, ‘Let’s have a show and get a block of tables,’ and so he did that. The Guild was the best organization of knifemakers in the world, and it had the biggest knife show anywhere in the world for many years.”

As for technology, Sornberger says it is simply a fact of life. Evidence of progress and efficiency are seen in makers’ shops routinely today, including CNC equipment, mills, lathes, ingenious versions of versatile grinders and more. “You can’t reverse technology,” he reasoned. “There are always new methods of doing something.”

Ron Lake had a huge hand in the evolution of custom knives, introducing his clever tab-lock interframe folder and helping popularize 416 stainless. “It was a different world back when,” he remarked. “We had a small corner at a gun show, and Blackie Collins was sitting off by himself 30 feet away from me with a slipjoint knife, and I remember Loveless cut himself with that knife! A lot of people came and went from the knife world back in those days.”

Bob Loveless knife
Contributions such as the dropped hunter by Bob Loveless were among the trends started by members of the Knifemakers’ Guild in the 1970s and beyond. (Exquisiteknives.com image)

As Moran brought damascus back into the spotlight in 1973 and other developments were coming along, Lake remembers the growing ranks of the virtuoso custom knifemakers, including Billy Mace Imel, Buster Warenski and others. He also recalls the sudden impact of Spyderco. “I think maybe it wasn’t so much the hole,” he said, “but the clip. That in itself was a mind-boggling event—maybe not so much at the time, but later as people started using it.”

Ron Lake, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran and A.G. Russell

The influential journalistic career of B. R. Hughes has made its own contribution to the modern knife world. Hughes was there in the beginning of the modern era. He planned the first Gun Digest Book of Knives along with Jack Lewis, and it hit the market in 1973.

“That was a meaningful year,” Hughes remembered. “Ron Lake, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran and A.G. Russell are the most influential individuals in the history of custom knifemaking, and A.G. played a bigger role than a lot of people give him credit for. He saw the need to organize and there was a meeting in Tulsa in 1970, and the first Guild Show was in 1971, and it grew unbelievably. They met in Houston and there were about 20 or so makers, and then the next year the show was in Kansas City, and there were 40 or 50, and it just kept growing.”

According to B. R., damascus was a catalyst for revival in American bladesmithing. “The inclusion of damascus saved bladesmithing,” he said, “and there were fewer than 15 bladesmiths in America in 1973. The number was going down. There was Bo Randall and then Rudy Ruana as well, but just a few younger bladesmiths.”

Bill Moran with Betty and Ted Dowell
The use of a wide range of new materials in the making of knives exploded in the 1990s and continues to this day. One of the latest examples is Bill Moran reintroduced damascus for knives at the 1973 Guild Show and the rest is history. Moran (right) observes another successful Guild Show with Betty and Ted Dowell at the ’74 event in Kansas City. (Sid Latham image), employed here by Gerry Michael on the blade of his Fancy Harpoon model. (Jocelyn Frasier image edit)

Then, he says, the founding of The American Blade weighed in. “That was immense,” he offered. “I started writing about knives in the early 1960s, and there were primarily just gun magazines. I wrote for Gun Week, doing some knife articles for them, but there was no knife magazine, and the people I wrote about were people I met at gun shows. Without a knife magazine, it made it tough to write about knives.”

Hughes added, “I was fortunate to be around the first meeting of the Guild and things like that.” Indeed, B. R. saw and wrote about history as it was made.

Knife Industry Ups and Downs

These days, the world of knives continues to expand, to change, to elicit praise and criticism. Britton has watched much of this evolution. “Quality Chinese repros are available at flea markets and gun shows for $15 to $40,” he observed. “Many knifemakers are designing knives for knife companies, further blurring the differences between handmade and factory/manufactured. The internet is being used extensively for marketing—from very ornate websites to knife forums. The ‘Show Calendar’ page in BLADE is crammed full of announcements of shows from San Francisco to Paris. Several knife dealers have created a secondary market, and literally thousands of knives are available for sale 24/7.”

Concurrently, Britton is excited about what he notices these days. “We’re seeing abrasive materials, grinders, CNC equipment, new steels, and exotic types of handle materials from paua shells to hippos’ teeth,” he noted. “Creative craftsmen are exploring new horizons with acrylics and phenolics and stabilized wood burls. We see something new at every show.”

Forged in Fire
Forged in Fire debuted in 2015 and since then has exposed millions of television viewers to knifemaking and bladesmithing on a weekly basis.

That, succinctly, is a strong indication of an industry, a passion, a way of life that continues to flourish despite the strain and stress that are natural byproducts of absolutely anything and everything that is alive. A half century from now there will be more milestones, more discussions and even greater achievement.

Members of the BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall Of Fame® mentioned in the story and sidebar are Blackie Collins, Sal Glesser, Gil Hibben, B. R. Hughes, Billy Mace Imel, Ron Lake, Jimmy Lile, Bob Loveless, Bill Moran, Bo Randall, Rudy Ruana, A.G. Russell, Jim Sornberger, Bruce Voyles, Michael Walker and Buster Warenski.

25 Knife Industry Milestones

1973 Bill Moran reintroduces damascus for knife blades at the Guild Show
1973 The American Blade debuts
1976 Bill Moran, B. R. Hughes, Don Hastings and Bill Bagwell found the American Bladesmith Society
1981 Spyderco debuts the C01 Worker, the first knife with both a blade opening hole and a pocket clip
1981 Michael Walker introduces a folder with the linerlock mechanism
1982 First Blood and Jimmy Lile’s Rambo knife appear in theaters
1983 Michael Walker first uses titanium in the construction of one of his linerlocks
1987 Buster Warenski completes the King Tut dagger reproduction
1988 The Bill Moran School of Bladesmithing opens in Old Washington, Arkansas
1992 Bruce Voyles moves the BLADE Show to the Renaissance Waverly Hotel in Atlanta, where it opens to rave reviews
1990s An explosion in Crucible Particle Metallurgy and the so-called “super steels,” and such materials as carbon fiber, mosaic damascus and more revolutionize knifemaking
1990s Computer numerically controlled equipment, laser cutters and more for knifemaking begin to appear
1990s Internet knife web pages, knife discussion forums, knife instruction videos and more start making their mark
Mid-1990s Tactical folders begin to dominate the custom and factory knife industries
1997 The BLADE Show moves from the Renaissance Waverly Hotel to the adjoining Cobb Galleria Centre and completes its ascendancy as the world’s most important knife event
1990s Chinese companies begin entering the factory knife business
1998 The American Knife & Tool Institute (AKTI), the oldest surviving knife advocacy group, debuts
2001 Terrorists bring down the Twin Towers and the knife industry reacts with a slew of military inspired knives, tomahawks and more
2006 The Knife Rights advocacy group debuts
2009 The knife industry unites to defeat an attempt by U.S. Customs to declare all one-hand-opening knives switchblades/automatics
2010s Social media begins taking the internet knife business to the next level
2010s Knife Rights and AKTI work to overhaul anti-knife legislation, including overturning automatic/switchblade bans and establishing knife preemption laws at the state level
2010s European knife manufacturers such as LionSteel, Fox Cutlery, Maserin and others begin winning more than their share of BLADE Magazine Knife-Of-The-Year® Awards
2015 Forged in Fire debuts and exposes millions of television viewers to knifemaking and bladesmithing for the first time
2020 The pandemic ravages the world and also the knife world, closing knife shows everywhere—including the BLADE Show
2020s The knife industry survives the pandemic, and, thanks to internet sales, even thrives in some segments—and knife shows begin to return

More Knife History:

Walter “Blackie” Collins: Applying The Edge To BLADE Magazine


Blackie Collins brought The American Blade to an audience thirsting for knife news.

Editor’s note: This year marks BLADE®’s 50th anniversary. In recognition of that milestone, we are presenting a series of stories celebrating our half-century birthday. This time, how Blackie Collins founded the magazine then known as The American Blade.

Whether designing a new knife, making a knife of his own creation, flying along on a motorcycle—or starting a magazine—BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Walter Wells “Blackie” Collins was a risk taker.

Fifty years ago, Blackie spearheaded the first issue of The American Blade, the original name of today’s BLADE® Magazine. It’s unlikely he ever thought his creation would endure as it has, or that it would grow to become the World’s No. 1 Knife Publication. But back then, the time was right to give it a try.

“I was in business with a friend of mine buying and selling knives, and Blackie would supply us with cutlery. He was an excellent custom knifemaker,” remembered Roger Aiple of New Orleans. “He was a close friend and you might say he was thinking about producing a magazine. He asked me what I thought about it, and, knowing Blackie and his dedication to knives, I said it was a great idea but that producing a magazine was not the easiest thing in the world.”

Blackie Collin's Knife on cover of blade
Blackie Collins loved motorcycles, including those by Ducati. In fact, he based the opening mechanism of his revolutionary Strut’N’Cut assisted-opening knife (inset gracing the cover of the October 1997 BLADE®) on the Ducati’s single-strut suspension system. He was killed in a motorcycle accident on July 20, 2011, at the age of 71.

Aiple introduced Blackie to Mal Mele and Sonny Molenaar, the owner of Molenaar Printing Company, in nearby Metairie, Louisiana, and the three men worked out a deal. Apparently, Mele and Molenaar were willing to share some of their insights on how magazine production worked, including printing, distribution, and other nuts and bolts items. Then, of course, there was editorial content to produce, copy to be written, and photos to be taken and reproduced for the new publication.

Blackie devoted energy and ideas to The American Blade, and there were two very good reasons for his drive to see the magazine concept become a reality. “Can you think of a better way, if you’ve got knives or knife designs, to get with other knife companies and everybody in the business?” reasoned Susan Collins, Blackie’s sister-in-law and wife of his brother, Michael. “The American Blade opened the door for him to walk into a shop or factory and say, ‘Let me do an article on you or on this or that subject.’ Blackie knew everybody, and it helped to make him very successful and Michael, too.”

While Blackie was putting The American Blade together, Michael was working away in the brothers’ shop. He knew Blackie was up to something but wasn’t sure exactly what was going on.

“I was working on knives and grinding blades, and he wouldn’t tell me what he was doing,” Michael smiled. “It was a surprise to me, but he got it done and it turned out well. Sometimes Blackie would do things and people would wonder why. He did a really good job of putting the magazine together and getting it published, and I sat back and watched it happen.”

Blackie Collins article
Blackie Collins wrote a series for the magazine titled, “Understanding Fine Cutlery,” and did his best to spread the good word of how to make knives, providing tips and pointers to up-and-coming makers.

Michael related that the two knives that graced the first cover of The American Blade were both his creations. After all, something had to go on that first cover, right? “He would set his mind to something, and that is what he was going to do,” Michael said of his industrious brother. “Sometimes, he would go a while before he would tell you what he was doing.”

Voice Of American Knifemaking

Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bill Adams, owner of long-time knife retailer Atlanta Cutlery for many years, was responsible in large part for the excitement that surrounded the knives of Sheffield, England, in the magazine in the early to mid-1970s. Sheffield was a center of knife production in Europe, and the quality of its cutlery was unsurpassed in the factory setting from the late 18th century until the early 20th century. After Bill put in long hours and travelled to Sheffield to search through the old local knife factories and make some key purchases, he had become an authority on Sheffield knives and co-wrote/wrote two articles on the topic in the first two issues of The American Blade. He later advertised Atlanta Cutlery in the magazine, too.

“There was something happening back at that time, and I thought The American Blade was an important development in the knife field,” Adams explained. “Up to that time, there was practically no news or information about custom knives, factory knives, sales outfits, or anything else if you were interested in collecting. Seems like I did write some articles for the magazine, and we probably swapped payment for advertising.”

Adams was right. There was something happening in the knife world in the 1970s, and The American Blade made information available to an ever-widening readership. Longtime knife-and-gun writer and one of the founders of the American Bladesmith Society, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer B. R. Hughes, once said, “In the latter part of the 1960s, A.G. Russell supplied me with a list of all the custom knifemakers he knew at that time. There were 21 names on the list. The American Blade appeared in 1973, and there are literally thousands of known makers in America today. This is due primarily to BLADE’s features on knifemaking, prominent knifemakers, techniques, materials and the like, as well as information on knifemaking schools and expositions. This dramatic explosion of custom makers would never have occurred without BLADE.”

Walter and Jane Collins
Jane Collins (right) said Blackie read and wrote constantly, and it was not unusual for him to stop his motorcycle on the side of the road or to get up in the middle of the night to write down an idea for a knife design or knife project.

And the big idea for The American Blade belonged to Blackie Collins. The magazine debuted with the May-June 1973 issue, and soon enough there was a buzz building up among knife people. Some of the most recognized custom makers in the industry were appearing with regularity in the pages of the magazine. D. E. Henry and Cutlery Hall-Of-Famer Bill Moran were members of its “Board of Editors,” while Bob Dozier made a knife that was given away in one issue to a lucky winner, a Mr. T. L. Cox of League City, Texas. Dozier, Moran, Lloyd Hale, Ted Dowell, Pat Crawford, Chubby Hueske, Herman Schneider, Cutlery Hall-Of-Famers Bob Loveless, Ron Lake, Buster Warenski, Wayne Goddard and Billy Mace Imel, and a host of other great custom makers were featured in one way or another in the succeeding issues. Dowell, Michael Collins, John Nelson Cooper, Jim Small, and Hueske also contributed giveaway knives that generated quite a swirl of excitement among early readers.

Bringing Knifemaking To The Masses

Blackie wrote a series for the magazine titled, “Understanding Fine Cutlery,” and did his best to spread the word on how to make knives, providing tips and pointers to up-and-coming makers. “There were a lot of people who wanted to learn how to make knives,” recalled Jane Collins, Blackie’s wife. “He had written a book about how knives are made, and he wanted to put the magazine out there to help new makers, too. It was so everybody could learn from it. He had learned from other people, and other people had learned from him.”

Jane remembers Blackie’s drive and commitment to various projects throughout his life, and The American Blade was an all-consuming endeavor for a while. “It caught on well. He was a writer, and he wrote and read constantly. He had the most interesting way of thinking about stuff,” she recalled. “He might be riding a motorcycle and have something come to mind and stop and write it down with a pencil and paper he carried. Sometimes, he woke up in the middle of the night and would run out to the workshop to make notes.”

Blackie always seemed to have a formula to make something go. His dedication to The American Blade in those early days was as intense as his new knife designs that always seemed to be in high demand.

“The magazine was such a good idea then because of our love of cutlery,” Roger Aiple observed. “We knew all of those first custom knifemakers, and the magazine was intended to promote knives. Blackie didn’t have any idea how to publish a magazine back then, but when I introduced him to Mal and to Sonny, they worked it out and helped him get it printed to start things.”

Soon after The American Blade got off the ground, Blackie must have felt that old familiar tug to move along to some new project. He had been listed on the magazine masthead as managing editor, editor and publisher, and of course, he had written articles as well. Some of the details from those days gone by have literally been lost to history, but it is safe to say that Blackie’s energy got things going, gave the publication the push that it needed, and set the stage for something that would have a far-reaching impact on the knife world.

Knife designed by Blackie Collins
Blackie Collins designed the Gerber L.S.T. (1983), the first knife ever to have a handle of glass-filled nylon.

“Blackie was the kind of guy that would put things together, make some money and move on,” Aiple observed. “He was a great custom knifemaker, but his heart was in designing knives and having someone else make them. He did sell the magazine. I think he had gotten tired. It was taking up too much of his time, and it does take a lot of time to put a magazine together, writing articles, getting advertising, having photos prepared.”

Blackie resigned from The American Blade within months of the magazine’s launch, and an announcement ran in the November-December 1974 issue. The new editor, William L. Cassidy, noted that his predecessor was moving on and commented on Blackie’s important role in establishing a solid foundation and tapping into the knife community so well. “Blackie is, after all, the fellow who began this magazine—who lived with it through triumph and failure alike—and for this we all certainly owe him a debt of gratitude,” Cassidy wrote.

Blackie worked on the first seven issues of The American Blade in 1973-74. He saw his creation grow and prosper, becoming the icon in the knife publishing world that it is today. After half a century, BLADE’s staying power is proven. It still delivers on the desire of its founder to spread the good word about knives, and its message is as enduring as one of Blackie’s great knife designs that so many people have carried and used with pride through the years.

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Allure Of The Subhilt


The Subhilt Provides An Additional Element To Make A Knife One Of A Kind. These Makers Show What A Subhilt Can Be.

The subhilt adds a little extra. Its form is expressive and its function is useful. It takes its share of the spotlight and provides another avenue of artistic approach for custom knifemakers who choose to build it.

A few of the makers who accept the challenge of the subhilt put their finest work forward. They use bold, sleek lines, and high-quality materials to bring the best of the subhilt to the market, and the combination of aesthetic and utility blends in a delightful presentation.

Subhilts In Italy

Daniele Ibba was already a goldsmith and “transferred” his skills in that pursuit to making knives. He describes himself as an “autodidact,” a self-taught subhilt maker.

Residing in a small town near Milan, Italy, Daniele Ibba has been making knives since 2004. He finds the subhilt a perfect approach to both usefulness and beauty as evidenced by his integral Medusa Gorgona. 

“Although the knife has a clear artistic connotation, it was developed as a not-artistic knife,” he explained, “and the purpose of this subhilt is to have a stable grip, especially in the lunge, and consequently the possibility to hit the target/threat harder.”

Grip options are plentiful, and Daniele calls his subhilt pleasant to handle in any position, with the best control in the standard or reverse grips. The subhilt allows the user to always know where the blade and edge are located, and offers more protection to the hand.

In the Medusa Gorgona, Ibba collaborated with Lana Gorska and took home best in show from the September 2021 SICAC Knife Show in Paris. 

“We are very proud of this,” he smiled, “because in every international show the competition is always very high and winning such a prize is never easy.”

The Medusa Gorgona is made from a single piece of 440C stainless steel hardened to a Rockwell hardness of 58-59 HRC, and is embellished with 13 mother-of-pearl inlays—four on the front of the handle, eight in the spine and one in the pommel. It also has 20 green diamonds, eight yellow diamonds, two blue diamonds, and three rubies—one round cut and two marquis cut. The fine engraving was done by Italian master Roberto Bruci.

“Lana and I had done many models in Plastiline® [a high-precision modeling clay] searching for the best ergonomic shape,” Daniele related. “Being a subhilt, it was not simple to reconcile design and easy handling. I do not have a [pantograph] or automated machinery, so it was very difficult to realize the handle and the slots for the mother-of-pearl inlays, but with time and patience I was able to achieve a beautiful result. Before designing the knife, Lana and I decided to engrave the mother-of-pearl with the mythological theme of Medusa.

“The story tells that she was one of the three sisters called the ‘Gorgoni,’ daughters of the Gods Forco and Ceto, and they had the power to petrify anyone with their gaze. So, we decided to make the name of the knife with the theme of the engraving, and Gorgona is like a nickname.”

An exquisite award-winning showpiece, the Medusa Gorgona stands out. Ibba’s price for a similar integral presentation without diamonds and extensive engraving would be roughly $13,000.

Marc Aldrich 

Marc Aldrich mirror polished the undersides of the 416 stainless steel quillons of the subhilt on his bowie in a blade of 80CrV2 carbon steel and a handle of artificial ivory. Blade and overall lengths: 10 7/8 and 16 1 /8 inches. (Photo: SharpByCoop)

ABS apprentice smith Marc Aldrich has been making knives since 2013 after taking a couple of courses from ABS master smith/BLADE® field editor Joe Szilaski. Marc admires the work of Dave Loukides, Sam Lurquin, and Jan Hafinec which gave life to his ideas for a subhilt bowie with dazzling results. 

His featured piece includes a blade of 80CrV2 carbon steel finished to a grit of 1500, a stainless subhilt with copper spacers, and a handle of artificial ivory accented with a copper pin. Marc made the sheath of hand-stitched leather with a quilted and copper-studded front panel, copper-studded frog and pigskin lining. A trace of a hamon is visible on the blade, and he explained that he chose not to etch the line but appreciates the discerning eye that catches sight of such detail.

“Of course, a subhilt adds retention and looks cool,” he offered, “but it helps if it is placed and shaped well. If we think of a knife as a sculptural object, the subhilt is another compositional, visual and tactile element we can use to add interest and function. I think my subhilt bowie is a mix between a bowie and fighter. Although not having a sharp swedge, the slender blade profile, added retention of the subhilt and excellent balance would make it formidable. The blade finish is actually bright and nearly mirror.”

Marc says his goal with every knife is to distill the lines down to their “pure essence.” His formula is “lines, flow, proportion and a tasteful balance of detail backed up with quality workmanship.”

The subhilt, he added, is an interesting subset of the bowie genre that is also seen in other knife styles. However, in all cases it must be properly spaced and integrated to avoid a clunky look and awkward handling. His price for a similar piece would run about $2,200.

Japanese Influence

Robert Appleby based his subhilt on a Tom Maringer-styled-and-designed fighter. Exhibiting a strong Japanese influence, the takedown model is comprised of 17 parts as a reflection of the 17 syllables in a Japanese haiku poem.

When Robert Appleby started making knives 27 years ago, he did so as a self-taught craftsman. He studied the work of other makers in similar styles prior to launching a piece of his own, and contacted other makers in person or by telephone to exchange information and gain understanding.

Appleby’s featured subhilt is a Tom Maringer-styled-and-designed Haiku fighter. Exhibiting a strong Japanese influence, the takedown model is composed of 17 parts as a reflection of the 17 syllables in a Japanese haiku poem.

A customer approached Robert a few years ago asking to make a 6-inch version of the original Maringer knife. After gaining permission, Robert borrowed an earlier version from a gracious customer and studied it closely. Robert has since made two knives in this fashion. The featured one sports a 9-inch blade of 154CM stainless steel mirror polished and double hollow ground. 

Robert Appleby’s fighter (Photo: SharpByCoop)

The habaki is forged 416 stainless, while the tsuba (guard) consists of four layers of 410 stainless, and the handle sports 416 stainless fittings. The subhilt is formed of approximately 60 feet of twisted 304 stainless steel wire. 

The handle and blade are joined by a toggle or link, and a pin attaches the tang to the threaded toggle. A 10-24 socket head cap screw is fed through the pommel and threaded into the toggle. For pricing on a similar piece, contact Robert directly.

“In my opinion, a subhilt provides increased retention, a more secure grip and increased control,” Appleby commented. “I don’t see the subhilt as impeding any grip style, as the blade is also double edged, and the subhilt also provides more positive extraction from the sheath. Each spacer is marked by a series of dots, one, two, three, etc., to hold the upper right of the tang hole. As I fit them, only the top and bottom of the tang hole contact the tang so they are self-aligning, as well as the front endcap of the handle. Indexing pins are set into the handle and align the last spacer, handle and pommel.”

Subhilts For Rugged Use

Knifemakers’ Guild voting member Gary Langley said his reproduction of a Bob Loveless Big Bear subhilt fighter is the only Big Bear he’s seen with a rear bolster. Blade and overall lengths: 8 3/8 and 15 inches.

Gary Langley built his reproduction of a Bob Loveless Big Bear subhilt for action. 

“This was designed to be a fighter,” he said. “I have sold one that was going to be used to hunt wild hogs, though this particular piece resides in a collection in Florida. It’s pretty much a straight grip, but I suppose you could hold it however you’re comfortable with it.”

After building a new house, Gary started making custom knives in 1977. His new neighbor was Don Dollar, and it was Don who revealed fit and finish to Gary for the first time. 

“Don showed me a few books and The American Blade Magazine [today’s BLADE®], and I was off,” Gary smiled. “I haven’t built a lot of knives compared to some, and this one is number 603. I’m 68 now and hope to get to 1,000 before I’m done.”

His Big Bear has a CPM 154 stainless blade and 416 stainless guard and subhilt with a mammoth ivory handle. Alice Carter did the engraving. Langley said this is the only Big Bear with a rear bolster he’s seen.

“I’m basically self-taught,” he commented, “and I’ve had a lot of inspiration, but have never taken a class or worked with anyone. [Steve] Johnson’s DVD on building a fighter was a big help—lots of trial and error! It’s not a simple knife to grind, and the things I learned trying to grind it have reshaped my process and equipment.

“The challenge on this blade with a rear bolster is to fit eight edges without a gap,” Langley concluded. “You just have to slow down. I would use my flat disc and rather than turn the motor on, I would turn it by hand so I didn’t go too far too fast.”

Depending on the engraving requested, Gary said his price for a similar knife would be around $3,000.

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